Lederer makes a compelling case for guidance when approaching
the St. Matthew Passion
for the first time. It is
a 'dense masterwork' (p.ix) written in an 'archaic musical
language' (p.1), and filled with melodies of 'tortured
intricacy' (p.11). As for harmony, Bach 'would never write
a simple harmonic accompaniment when a more complex, expressive
one presented itself to him, as it always did' (p.104).
The guidance offered in this volume is aimed squarely at
those new to the work and unfamiliar with the technical
jargon of musicology. But there is something here for everybody,
and the final chapter on the work's reception and recording
history will also be of interest to those already familiar
with the details of the score.
first impression on opening the book is of continuous,
uninterrupted text. Dispensing with musical examples is
no doubt intended to avoid discouraging the uninitiated,
but the absence of illustrations or subheadings could well
have that very effect. Comparison with Christoph Wolff's
recent Bach biography (on which this draws heavily) shows
the wealth of portraits, manuscripts and maps available
to such a publication. Lederer compensates with a reader-friendly
writing style, concise and substantial but always focussing
first and foremost on the experience of listening.
precedents and biography are given a cursory treatment
in Chapter 1. Lederer's coverage of the passion settings
of Heinrich Schütz is unlikely to convince those unfamiliar
with them to take the gamble, and his discussion of Bach's St.
recommends some of its parts - the arias
in particular - at the expense of the whole. But listeners
who really want to understand the context of the St.
are left in no doubt that the preferred
route is via the cantatas: 'Surely that particularly dedicated
subgroup of Bach lovers who listen lovingly to the cantatas
are best equipped to deal with the mega-cantata oratorio
form of the passions' (p.16).
and librettist are treated on almost equal terms throughout,
and the success of the St. Matthew Passion
to the dramatic and spiritual insights of both men. Indeed,
the only fault Lederer finds with Picander is his 'curious'
(p.2) nom de plume
, which he acknowledges in the
opening pages but then abandons, insisting instead on his
real name, Henrici, for the remainder of the volume. The
most substantial part of the book is a walk-through of
the work, highlighting points of interest along the way.
Musicologists (admittedly not the book's intended audience)
are likely to find the focus on the libretto surprising.
The pietistic overtones of each aria text are discussed
in detail, and the biblical narrative, rendered here in
the archaic-sounding King James translation, is referenced
throughout by chapter and verse rather than movement number.
focus on the words serves as a continuous reminder of the
work's liturgical origins, and 'modern, secular listeners'
(p.105) are entreated throughout to relate their own perceptions
to those of the work's earliest audiences. Such empathy
faces many obstacles, and the reliance on allegorical imagery,
for example the Daughters of Zion in the opening chorus,
is considered a particular hurdle. Lederer writes 'One
must understand that the scientific revolution was barely
underway when the St. Matthew Passion was first performed…'
(p.42). He expects less empathy for the 'undeniable anti-Semitism'
(p.23) of Bach's representations of the baying crowds,
which are 'unfortunate, but deeply rooted'.
about music for those unfamiliar with its terminology is
a challenge for any author, but time and again Lederer
proves himself equal to the task. Triplets are evoked with
both economy and clarity as 'the throbbing rhythmic figuration
in which three notes are squeezed into the space of two'
(p.55), while a dotted rhythm in one of the arias of second
part is described as containing notes that 'are alternating
short and long, with the long notes accented heavily: de dumm
, de dumm
' (p.76). One side effect
of this tactile immediacy is a bypassing of aesthetic convention.
On p.51, for example, a falling appoggiatura is described
as a 'sighing figure' associated with regret, which encapsulates
this particular usage, but ignores the fact that such effects
were part of Bach's lingua franca
, codified into
a musical language as familiar to the composer's first
audiences as they were to the man himself.
those already familiar with the St. Matthew Passion, the
last chapter of the book is likely to be of the greatest
interest. It chronicles the works reception history starting
from its 'rediscovery' by Mendelssohn in the 1830s and
continuing through to the hegemony of the period performance
movement in recent times. Before covering the Mendelssohn
revival, Lederer devotes a few pages to the reception of
Bach's other music in the late 18th century. He argues
that, despite modern perceptions, Bach's music never went
away and was influential throughout the Classical era.
He makes a convincing case for Bach's influence on Mozart,
but stretches the argument to encompass Haydn (whose counterpoint
has 'Bachian intensity' (p.110)), Beethoven and even Chopin.
story of the Mendelssohn revival is told in more moderate
terms. Those familiar with the received view that the Passion
completely forgotten between 1750 and Mendelssohn's 1829
performances will be surprised at how the events of that
'rediscovery' unfolded. The young composer had been presented
with a copy of the score by his grandmother as a Christmas
present in 1823. Lederer surmises that the score must have
been handwritten as the work had never been published,
leaving open the question of where it had been in the 73
years since its composer's death. The landmark revival
performances were organised with the considerable practical
help of Carl Fredrich Zelter, conductor of the Berlin Singakademie
a prestigious choral group with whom Mendelssohn had sung
as a boy treble. Zelter was himself familiar with the St.
, having rehearsed (although not performed)
it with the group in 1815. Mendelssohn's performances were
therefore not quite the miraculous resurrection that later
history considers them, although they remain a staggering
achievement for their conductor, then only twenty years
of the work's recent performance and recording history
weighs heavily in favour of the 'historically informed'
tradition. The last section of the book takes its practical
responsibilities seriously, namely to guide those unfamiliar
with the work towards recordings that will satisfy both
their expectations and their curiosity. Performances by
full symphony orchestras are treated as an ironically historical
phenomenon, a point made explicit by their absence among
modern recordings, the last full orchestra recording (the
Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan) having been made in
1972 (p.120). Lederer shows no nostalgia for this tradition,
although the vehemence of his attacks suggests that he
suspects some from his readers. Furtwängler gets the harshest
critical mauling for both his slow tempi and for his 'butchering'
of the work by cutting seven arias. With regard to tempo,
Lederer sagely opines 'common sense would suggest that
excessively slow tempos cannot help the St. Matthew Passion,
which is already long, grave and unbearably intense' (p.123).
there is very little to question in the book. I would take
issue with the statement (p.118) that Bach never used trombones,
and also perhaps with the repeated references to 18th century
Saxony as 'central Germany' (for example p.30), which seems
both anachronistic and geographically suspect. Nevertheless,
this volume has much to offer its target audience, who
can be identified with some precision through the comparisons
and frames of reference invoked: they are American, music
loving (with a particular taste for Romantic opera) and
are interested in, but not knowledgeable about, the musical
and liturgical culture of Europe in the 18th century. Those
with more than a passing knowledge of the work may have
to look harder to find something of interest to them. Musicians
are likely to find the focus on the libretto excessive,
but it serves as a useful reminder of the liturgical and
dramatic function, all to easily bypassed when the work’s
technical accomplishment can be equally appreciated on
purely musical terms. The final chapter, detailing the
performance and recording history of the work, is also
likely to be of interest to those already familiar with
the music. Meaning and significance seem to accrue to the St.
with each successive performance and
recording. Updates on its progress are always welcome.
Dr. Gavin Dixon is a writer
and composer based in Hertfordshire, UK.
His web site Musical